The voice of Reynolds Price reverberated in the Chapel once more last week.
Nearly 400 friends, family, colleagues and students traveled from as far as London and San Francisco to celebrate the life of the late professor last Thursday in an event coined “A Long and Happy Life,” echoing the title of his first novel. In addition to tributes from friends, the celebration showcased Price’s art across genres with snippets of drama, poetry and song.
In a set of instructions he wrote more than two decades ago, Price, Trinity ’55, insisted that the ceremony last no more than 45 minutes—he refused to bore an audience. The celebration opened with an audio recording of Price reading a Ben Jonson poem, which ends, “In small proportions we just beauties see. And in short measures life may perfect be.”
Price, who passed away in January at 77, was a preeminent Southern author whose books sold millions of copies. He arrived at Duke as a teenager and stayed a lifetime, save for “a brief truancy” at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, President Richard Brodhead remarked in his address.
“We’re not ready to send you onward to the great beyond, Reynolds, and yet we know we must,” said former Duke president Nannerl Keohane. “We do so confident that your love and friendship, wit and humor, passion and intelligence will always remain vivid among us, and that this will be true both for each of us personally and for the University you loved so well and did so much to shape for good.”
The pair of presidents spoke to the professor’s dual genius for language and friendship. For more than half a century, Price was Duke’s “embodiment of a man of letters,” Brodhead said.
Yet as Price’s renown grew, his warmth never dampened. After his paralysis in 1984, he reached out of his wheelchair to give hugs, Keohane recalled.
Countless readers felt a bond with Price, even if they had never met him. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton invited Price to the White House. The former president greeted the author by reciting the first page of “A Long and Happy Life” from memory, English professor Victor Strandberg said in an interview.
Novelist Josephine Humphreys, Trinity ’67, went on to become close friends with Price, but they conversed just a few times while she was an undergraduate. Yet even then, she felt like a member of his inner circle.
“He was the one I followed, the one I wrote for,” she said. “He had that gift, the ability to lasso the hearts of strangers. A real star or outlaw does that…. Each of us thinks, ‘He’s singing to me.’”
Like many young writers on campus, Daniel Voll, Trinity ’83, was told to find Price if he was serious about the craft. Their conversation began a decades-long friendship. Voll, now a writer and producer, was the first of Price’s 30 live-in assistants after his paralysis.
Voll quoted a chat he had about Price with Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that morning: “She said, ‘He was the best of us. Homegrown. A kind of angel.’ And then she paused for a long time, and she said, ‘We were kin, you know what I mean?’”
Strandberg said for those who were close to Price, it is impossible to set the memory of him aside. His mind turns to Price at least once a day, often before he leaves home. Each morning, he lifts weights in his basement with a portrait of the author in view.
Keohane shared the treasured memory of an evening she spent with Price at a University party. Sitting at the edge of the dance floor, Price tapped his finger to the handle of his wheelchair as the music throbbed. Eventually, Keohane asked him if he would ask her to dance.
“We swung around the room holding hands encircling one another, at first sedately and then with more abandon,” she said.
The event was planned by a committee led by one of Price’s thousands of students, Rachel Davies, assistant director for the University’s Lifelong Learning and Travel organization, who knew him all her life.
Emotions were so raw following Price’s death that Davies, Women’s College ’72, decided to wait to hold the event. After several months, Humphreys said it was easier to hear his voice, though the recording still brought tears to her eyes.
“His death shocked people—the sudden realization that he’s not here, you can’t call him up, you’re never going to hear that voice again,” she said in an interview. “[The recording] was one of the high points of the service. Suddenly, there he was. I get a little shaky just thinking about it—the voice.”
The service closed with a recording of “Copperline,” a song by Price and James Taylor. As those in attendance prepared to exit the Chapel, the voice that rang out belonged to Taylor, but Price had the last words.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.